Of Triolets and Sparrows

This week, I’ve been researching a form of poem called the Triolet. This originated in France around the 13th century and is closely related to another poetic form, the Rondeau. Both emphasise repetition and rhyme. Only eight lines in length, the Triolet is a short poem that relies upon repetition of only two rhymes.

The first line is repeated in the fourth and seven lines; the second line is repeated in the final line, so that in fact, there are only five different lines in the poem. The form is ABaAabAB. Originally written as devotional pieces, the Triolet enjoyed something of a renaissance among British poets in the late 19th century. Often these later Triolets were humorous, such as the famous example by Frances Cornford 1886-1960, (a great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin):

 

Frances Cornford, by Janet Stone,1968.

Frances Cornford, by Janet Stone,1968.

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,

Missing so much and so much?

O fat white woman whom nobody loves,

Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,

When the grass is soft as the breast of doves

And shivering sweet to the touch?

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,

Missing so much and so much?

 

Triolets were not always so lighthearted, though. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) recognised the potential of the form to convey more melancholy themes, as in his poem How Great My Grief, which is probably the best-known Triolet:

 

Thomas Hardy, some time between 1910 and 1915 (retrieved from Wikipedia)

Thomas Hardy, some time between 1910 and 1915 (retrieved from Wikipedia)

How Great My Grief

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Since first it was my fate to know thee!

– Have the slow years not brought to view

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Nor memory shaped old times anew,

Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee

How great my grief, my joys how few,

Since first it was my fate to know thee?

 

I decided to try my hand at a Triolet and, as I’d been considering sparrows, I decided to make them the subject of my poem. The humble house sparrow may not as humble as all that. I was amazed when, a few years ago, my sister was visiting us in Bahrain and commented upon seeing the sparrows hopping about on the patio that their numbers had declined drastically in Britain in recent years. I believe that the RSPB now considers the House Sparrow to be an endangered garden bird. I hope they are not going the same way as the bees.

House Sparrow (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

House Sparrow (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

I don’t think we have a problem with sparrow numbers declining in New Zealand – if anything, there is the constant argument about how much the introduced species of flora and fauna threaten the native species. Sparrows were introduced to New Zealand in the second half of the 19th century, when the Acclimatisation Societies were busying themselves with trying to recreate the sounds of the English cottage garden in New Zealand. All sorts of birds were brought out to the colony by various importers, many of them having been specially captured in Britain to order – one man used to set traps and catch birds in nets in the streets of London in the early mornings, to the amazement of passers-by who could not believe that any country would be begging for sparrows and starlings!

Dunnock (Retrieved from Wikipedia)

Dunnock (Retrieved from Wikipedia)

In fact, New Zealand was not really begging for house sparrows, but for their more appealing cousins, the Hedge Sparrow, or Dunnock. Due to a bungle, 13 pairs of house sparrows were brought to Lyttelton (though many did not survive the journey) and, when it was discovered that they were the ‘wrong’ sort of sparrow, the captain of the ship in which they had arrived released the survivors and watched them fly up into the rigging, where they sat, twittering, for some time. It was said that the entire sparrow population of Canterbury Province sprang from those few stragglers. I made this story the basis of my Triolet:

Breakfasting sparrows (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Breakfasting sparrows (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

How the Sparrows came to Canterbury

The sparrows sailed in a tall ship,

that they might flit and chirp and breed

(some perished on the three-month trip).

The sparrows sailed in a tall ship,

the order sent had been a slip –

‘Dunnocks — .’ The catcher paid no heed.

The sparrows sailed in a tall ship,

and they did flit and chirp – and breed.

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